Future-Proofing Government Communications

Over the Easter break, in amongst spending quality time with the kids and eating too much chocolate, I managed to pick up and read a fascinating report.

The OECD Report on Public Communications: The Global Context and the Way Forward, is ground-breaking. Published in December 2021, it is the world’s first evidence-based, comprehensive international report on public communication. The report analyses the government communication function, maturity, structures, mandates, and communication practices across 46 countries.

It clearly describes how the communication function, when properly delivered, can contribute to better stakeholder engagement, policies, government services, improved citizen trust and stronger democracies.

What also struck me was the commonality of the challenges. They are the same no matter where you are in the world.

The report’s findings and recommendations are a must-read for government and industry communicators and leaders.

In the spirit of sharing, here are my key takeaways from the report.

Current state:

  • Public communication is the government’s function to deliver information and to listen and respond to citizens in the service of the common good. The exchange of information between governments and citizens is an essential part of good policymaking, governance and democracy.
  • Governments often miss the opportunity to effectively communicate and engage with their citizens. This deficit of transparent, inclusive, and responsive communication has a clear cost to governments around the world.
  • Many societies are undergoing a crisis of trust in government that is undermining democracy. This is  evidenced by 60% of respondents from 21 countries feeling that their government did not incorporate their views when designing social policy (OECD, 2018), and almost 50% of people surveyed across 28 countries feeling that the political system is not working for them (Edelman, 2021).
  • Citizens’ trust in information is also being challenged. Hostile actors are taking advantage of digital tools to fuel fear and divisions across the world. Only 35% of responders trust social media (Edelman, 2021), 46% trust the news, and news avoidance is a growing phenomenon (Reuters Institute 2020).
  • Communications as a corporate function is often undervalued by government. It is often an afterthought, treated as a tactic rather than a strategic tool. It is poorly resourced and focuses too heavily on traditional, rather than modern, methods of stakeholder engagement and digital communication. 76% of responders identified a lack of human resources and skilled staff as among their top three challenges to effective communications.

Recommendations

The OECD Report identifies five key principles for effective public communication, below are the recommendations:

  1. Empower the public communication function. Set appropriate mandates and strategies to consider communication in support of policy objectives and the open government principles of transparency, integrity, accountability, and stakeholder participation. Separate the public communication function, to the extent possible, from political communication.
  2. Institutionalise and professionalise communication business units. Provide the necessary human and financial resources to deliver the capacity, skills, and specialisations to support this important transformation.
  3. Transition towards communication informed by insights into the behaviours, perceptions, and preferences of diverse publics. Evaluate communication against impact metrics associated with evidence-based public policy objectives.
  4. Seize the potential of digital technology responsibly: Digital tools, data, and Artificial Intelligence can facilitate greater engagement and inclusion if used ethically and with respect for privacy.
  5. Fight misinformation and disinformation. The government must be equipped to pre-empt and debunk misinformation and disinformation through relevant content, clear practice, and guidelines.

Benefits

If governments take these actions, the benefits to be realised include:

✔ Improved policy making, service design and delivery.

✔ Enhanced open government principles of transparency, integrity, accountability, and stakeholder participation.

✔ Strengthened resilience to misinformation and disinformation.

✔ Improved crisis response.

✔ Increased dialogue and co-creation with stakeholders.

✔ Stronger democracies.

✔ Regain citizens’ trust in government.

✔ More robust, resilient, and reliable public information ecosystems.

✔ More effective and influential senior public officials and policymakers.

The description of the current state of global public communication reminded me of issues faced by the Australian Defence Department in the early 1990s. At that time, program and project management was a relatively immature organisational function.

With the commencement of multi-billion dollar maritime acquisition programs and the introduction of PRINCE2 in 1996, and Managing Successful Programs in 1999, the Australian Defence Industry undertook a significant professionalisation of its project and program management capability.

The communications function is in precisely the same place now. The need is high, the priority is urgent, and change has to happen now. The next decade will be a fascinating case study in the government’s ability and willingness to embrace change in the interests of the communities it serves. I’m looking forward to supporting the professionalism of the communications function, and the increased adoption of digital capabilities, content creation and use of channels to better reach, engage with and influence stakeholders and citizens.

Exciting times ahead!

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